We can learn something at the movies. Case in point, two films with a very important lesson to impart to parents: raising a prodigy is hell. The little genius may break your heart, may embarrass you in front of guests, and may murder your newborn child. Can't be sure, can't be sure.
Two prodigies deserve two movies, one a Swiss feel-good drama, the other an American horror film, although the latter's artsy execution and lack of bloodied teenagers might demand a more highfalutin label like "psychological thriller." Both movies are about talented boys with proud parents who are thoroughly unprepared for the plague that such a child can bring upon a household. Both boys excel at the piano, Vitus so much that his parents pressure him to pursue music seriously; he'd prefer a little less attention, but Joshua expects a little more, especially now that the baby has arrived.
It's probably hard to make a film like Joshua without reminding people of other "bad seed" movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen, so director George Ratliff wisely embraces his forerunners with a pile of subtle allusions, making nods even to the unlikely model of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in which a baby carriage teeters on the edge of the Odessa Steps. With a Bugaboo in place of the pram — and nothing in place of the politics — it's as far-flung and irrelevant a reference as Brian De Palma's visual reconstruction of that sequence in The Untouchables, with a similarly pristine American setting.
But even with all of those cinematic allusions, Joshua feels clean and simple, like a tight little ecosystem, fully self-contained except that it offers no definitive explanation for why the boy is so darn bad. Near as we can tell, he wasn't sired by the devil or deprived of affection. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga (Matt Damon's love interest in The Departed) seem like fine albeit disengaged parents, having raised their boy this far with no apparent signs of demonic possession, although they do seem strangely ill-prepared for the demands of a second child, let alone a holy terror blossoming within their first. Writing in LA Weekly, Scott Foundas has suggested that the finale absurdly connects Joshua's extreme behavior to the boy's gay uncle whom he seems to favor, but that reading gives the film credit for complexity that it doesn't possess. More likely, the eerie, uncle-directed smile is just another horror movie cliché: the question mark after "The End." (As in: might the uncle be next?)
As silly as the whole thing is, the purity of the suspense is surprisingly effective. Like the boy robot at the beginning of AI, Joshua is creepy not because of any overt violence but because of his starched collars and his weirdly cocked head. His parents are more haggard with every passing minute, and to her credit Farmiga alone provides the film's most hair-raising moment with a blood-curdling, popcorn-rattling, caught-in-the-throat screech that reminds us who's suffering here. Moms get short shrift in both films, but at least Joshua considers their sacrifices to be horrific. Vitus's mom quits her job as soon as her son demonstrates the potential to be a great pianist, focusing her life on his training, while Dad continues to invent hearing aids that let people hear like bats and Grandpa provides a quiet refuge for a put-upon piano prodigy. Vitus, though generally less threatening than Joshua, nevertheless brings his dedicated mother low by humiliating her more than once with his refusal to play the piano for assembled guests, a favorite stunt in Joshua's repertoire, as well. When a colleague questions his mother's decision to quit working and encourages her to consider her career, I spent a few minutes doing just that, considering her career, asking myself questions like: what the hell is her career?
Vitus eventually learns to channel his energies into acceptable displays of brilliance. His mishaps along the way are more cute than horrific. He has designs on the baby sitter, for example, and invites her to dinner; Joshua might have forced her onto a ledge. In a head-to-head dual, Joshua vs. Vitus, the winner would largely be determined by the arena. Locked in a New York apartment, Joshua and a pair of scissors would make quick work of poor Vitus. At a piano recital, Vitus, played by 11-year old virtuoso Teo Gheorghiu who actually performs all of the difficult pieces in the film, would likely mop the floor with Joshua, if — and this is a big if — you could get the boys to perform at all. In a contest of international finance, the ribbon clearly goes to Vitus. Joshua spends a great deal of time posing dramatically in the pregnant shadows, waiting for the cue to cock his head and say, "Mommy?" to an unsuspecting parent, whereas Vitus uses that time to siphon funds into a secret brokerage account, execute trades on inside information, and amass a fortune in his grandfather's name. What a cutey. (Remember, Joshua is the bad one.)
So we have, in miniature, a comparison between tiny criminals with big IQ's — white-collar and cold-blooded — and the difference between the two doesn't come down to parenting or innate brilliance or even randomness of the universe, at least not solely. Curiously ricocheting off of their own histories, both films assign some responsibility to the satellites of the core family, the grandparents.
Joshua director Ratliff's previous movie was a documentary called Hell House about churches that use haunted houses as a means to an end, namely to scare kids toward God. In his new film, not only has he included an evangelical grandmother among Joshua's targets — perhaps the flimsiest and most scorned character in the movie besides Joshua himself — but he's also made a horror film as a means to no end whatsoever. Touché.
The kindly grandfather in Vitus is played by Bruno Ganz who just two years earlier was Adolph freaking Hitler in Downfall. But wait; Ganz was also an angel in Wings of Desire — an angel who longed to be human — so he's particularly attuned to the myriad planes in which a soul can tip. Here he makes wooden wings for his grandson to wear on his back, and more importantly he provides just the right amount of support — ample freedom, a ready ear, (I could go so far as to rhyme with "manssiere") — that the other distracted or overbearing adults in both films can't properly modulate. One wonders what sort of grandfather he'd have been to Joshua, whether he'd have looked the other way when the scissors came out or gladly been the beneficiary of evil deeds.
I suppose I'm a cynic for taking a bit more pleasure from Joshua's morbid repetitions than from Vitus's celebration of a boy who inherits the wings of a bat, the hearing of a bat, and the piano-playing ability of a fantastically talented bat, a boy who eventually makes his mama proud even though she's allowed no blood-curdling screams during his rough pubescence.
But much of the pleasure comes from Joshua's illusion of brevity. The movies are roughly the same length, but Vitus feels twice as long. Its heartwarming veneer just isn't enough to sustain the minutes that Joshua, via goosebump-effects, breezes through.
"who just two years earlier was Adolph freaking Hitler in Downfall. But wait; Ganz was also an angel in Wings of Desire — an angel who longed to be human — so he's particularly attuned to the myriad planes in which a soul can tip."
He was also the rapist who nobody thought could be a rapist in THE MARQUISE OF O, so I guess he's got the inside track on how to put on the upright guy disguise.
I quite liked Ratliff's HELL HOUSE, but JOSHUA hasn't opened here yet. I assume, though, that Joshua doesn't scrawl any pentagrams that are actually Stars of David.
Heh, I haven't seen The Marquise of O, but I'm glad to hear that it fits. That wily Herr Ganz!
If Joshua had scrawled some hexagrams inside that New York apartment, I'm not sure how I'd have taken it. That he was sired by the devil after all? And/or that he's not as smart as we've given him credit for. Or that he's being ironic? That he's seen Hell House?
I enjoyed Hell House, too, by the way, and I wouldn't have predicted something like Joshua for the filmmaker's next movie. (Joshua is on DVD, after a short theatrical run.)
Here's Michael Sicinski:
Joshua, in the end, dabbles in hot topics like postpartum depression, ideologies of the family, and gay parenting, but mistakes a massive muddle for complexity. And so, the conundrum: is Joshua oblique or just noncommittal? Obviously this will depend on whether one finds the film's dots worth connecting. But it seems to be that if you just take Ratliff's film at face value, what you have is another cautionary tale about fey little boys, regardless of whether they're born or made. A film like Joshua, clearly made by highly intelligent people, shouldn't fall prey to such a dumb cliché.
Scroll to the bottom to see the full review (which gives you a clue about what he thought of it).
I haven't bothered to track down DVDs of these two films, so I had to use whatever stills were already available, and I was delighted to find two that worked together so well. The vertical/horizontal lines, the arms outstretched playing their respective instruments/cribs, the earnest artist vs the hokey bad seed, the natural light vs the lamp, warm colors vs cool colors, left-facing vs right.
I don't think I'd have identified two better stills if I'd had every frame at my disposal.